Title: The Stars My Destination
Author: Alfred Bester
Genre: Science Fiction
Gulliver Foyle is lost in space and sleeping the days away in the hope of being rescued – or waiting for his supplies to finally run out.
When a spaceship comes closer to the relic he’s clinging to and ignores his cry for help, he swears he will find a way to go back to Earth and get revenge on all the people aboard.
But his investigations lead to the discovery that something else was drifting with him in space, and it could be worth an interplanetary war.
A closer look
This book was – as it happens with most of what I read – different than I expected. While I was ready for old-school sci-fi, I was not expecting to be following a revenge story along a plot that sounds more thriller than sci-fi.
But let’s proceed with order.
In the future imagined by Alfred Bester, humans have discovered and perfected a new ability, called “jaunting” after the name of the first person to ever do it. It’s basically a kind of teleportation; the person has to know exactly the coordinates of his starting point and his arriving point, and different people have different range of action. No one can jaunte in outer space, or from planet to planet.
This has brought on a revolution in life on earth. People build maze-like houses in order to guarantee privacy, women are treated as precious objects to be protected at all costs, and the rich consider jaunting to be below them and find the fanciest means of travel instead. This has also somewhat disrupted the economy between the Inner Planets and the Outer Satellites, bringing the two factions to the brink of war.
After a brief introduction to explain the setting, we move forward to the 25th century and to our protagonist, Gulliver Foyle, who has spent almost six months adrift in space in the relic of a spaceship, awaiting help – or maybe death.
It all changes when the spaceship Vorga gets close to his position; Gully signals to them and watches them with hope, dismay, and finally anger as they turn away and abandon him.
This is what pushes him over the edge. Once a common man, too lazy to ever push himself hard, Gully is fuelled by his anger and manages to get his relic in motion, albeit with little control. He crashes on an asteroid, gets rescued, and commences his quest for revenge.
The story is a bit meandering at times, and very compelling in some parts; it’s a strange mix of revenge plot, mystery, and sci-fi. The part when Gully is imprisoned? Great. The final sequence? I loved it, and it gave me a taste of what I was looking for all along, with the revelations about Gully and the burning man. But there were so many scenes in the middle where I felt the story was dragging, I didn’t care about the characters or anything that was going on.
The subplot surrounding the mysterious cargo of Gully’s spaceship was disappointing. For a moment after the discovery I hoped that it would change the protagonist’s goal in the story, but it fell almost immediately into the background until the very end, and even then it was not exploited to its fullest potential. It was mostly an excuse to have everyone chasing after Gully.
Speaking about the characters, they feel very one-dimensional. I wasn’t expecting great characterisation (considering how old the book is) but I always hope for a little more. The protagonist is the prime example of this: he is moved to action by his rage and hatred for the people who abandoned him, and that’s it. Everything he does throughout the book comes back to these primal feelings, even when letting go could mean a happier life. He is obsessed, and the reader becomes obsessed with him. There’s no way out, and this is another reason why I couldn’t buy how quickly he fell in love with a character he has barely met.
I sadly didn’t like any of the female characters, aside from a few tiny scenes, but I especially disliked the love interest. I’m not even sure why Gully falls in love with her, as she is unpleasant with him from the start.
I didn’t care about any of the other characters either, and I found their pov scenes to add very little to the overall story.
It doesn’t help the novel the fact that the language is also affected by the period in which the book was published. I found it especially jarring whenever it referred to a black woman as a “negro girl”. It was used as a neutral term, but probably due to the similarity of the word to the Italian one (which is considered derogative), I just found it grating.
All in all, this was just an okay novel for me. I always go into older sci-fi in the hope of capturing that sense of awe caused by the idea of space and everything that we still don’t know about it, but if you take away the shaky subplot of the interplanetary war and the few spaceships, this novel could have easily been a urban fantasy.
It’s as if the author was not sure about which part of the story he wanted to focus on: the jaunting, Gully’s revenge, or this mysterious cargo that could cause a war. All of these things are interesting on their own, but they feel underdeveloped because they are not well connected. Instead of a cohesive plot where all the elements are vital to make sense of the story, we have a story that switches from one kind of plot to the other. Any of these elements could be taken out of the story and it would make almost no difference to the overall plot, and in the end that’s my biggest issue with the book.
Hopefully, my next foray into sci-fi will bear better fruits.